The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America's Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seasby Todd Balf
In the 1850s, the world's foremost scientists, capitalists, and statesmen saw the Darien wilderness in eastern Panama as the perfect spot to build a great canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Ships from three continents raced to this largely unexplored region, but the twenty-seven-man U.S. Darien Exploring Expedition, led by an ambitious, adventure-driven navy lieutenant named Isaac G. Strain, made sure it got there first. Misled by fraudulent maps and unable to find any "gap" amid the mass of precipitous peaks, the expedition marched the untracked course of the isthmus's longest and most contorted river, enduring oppressive equatorial heat and a terrifying catalogue of often bewildering tropical maladies. Their ninety-seven-day ordeal of starvation, exhaustion, and madness -- a tragedy turned largely to triumph due to the courage and self-sacrifice of their leader and the seamen who followed him devotedly is one of the great untold tales of human survival and exploration in the tropics. Based on the vividly detailed log entries of Strain and his junior officers, other newly discovered period sources, and Balf's own multiple treks through the dangerous (and still roadless) Darien Gap, The Darkest Jungle is a rich and utterly compelling historical narrative that will thrill readers who enjoyed In the Heart of the Sea, Isaac's Storm, The Endurance, and other sagas of adventure at the limits of human tolerance.
- Crown Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.48(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.13(d)
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1 / GALES of DECEMBER
And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people. . . . God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours. In our youth is our strength; in our inexperience our wisdom . . . And let us always remember, that with ourselves--almost for the first time in the history of the Earth--national selfishness is unbounded philanthropy; for we cannot do a good to America but we give alms to the world.
Herman Melville, White-Jacket (1850)
December 19, 1853
39* 56' N, 75* 8' W
The ships rounding cape henlopen at the mouth of the Delaware River were rushing home to port. A blockade of frost had fastened upon Delaware Bay and was spreading up the river's winding, 100-mile course to Philadelphia. Already two merchant ships, the bark Louisa and the brig Loretto, were bound up near the breakwater. Another few days of single-digit cold and even the port's steam tugs might not make it out. The river would be corked until March. Along the bitterly cold Southwark waterfront, where the long wood-planked wharves and the brick-walled Navy yard thronged with officers and merchantmen safely back, the talk wasn't of Christmas or the New Year but the coming ice. Few could recall it fixing so early.
At dockside the sloop-of-war Cyane's preparations drew curious onlookers. She wasn't one of the American Navy's powerful new steamships, but an old square-rigged man-of-warwhose heyday was the Mexican War, almost a decade before. There wasn't a graceful line in her 132 feet of running length, critics said, and the secretary of the Navy seemed to agree; her active duty in recent years had been confined to quiet coastal cruises. Of late the vessel had gone nowhere. A year earlier, at port in Hampton Roads, Virginia, a near mutiny had erupted, and the subsequent trial had kept the ship in limbo for months. Only in recent weeks had the Cyane received the okay to return to duty and with the order a different, more restorative kind of attention. Her hull was newly coppered and her decks and hold meticulously disinfected with a purging vinegar wash.
She was crammed with personnel. In addition the standard two-hundred-man complement for a vessel her size, she carried an unusual number of supernumeraries--a party that included three additional naval officers, a trio of engineers, and two civilian volunteers, one of those a surgeon. The extra outfit was evidently getting a lift somewhere. The Cyane was said to be headed south on Home Squadron business, but where exactly, nobody knew. The hustle and bustle suggested she had little time to lose.
In fact, throughout the frigid winter day the activity intensified. The ship's carpenters banged together chicken coops and pigpens, and the boatswain's mate's silver whistle pealed insistently. A "high die" or "heave hard" command boomed from the deck officer's speaking trumpet with enough venom to awaken the dear departed souls on Chestnut Street. Man-hauled sail bundles rose up the fore, main, and mizzen masts, and late-arriving stores, livestock, and sea trunks coursed across the gangway. By the locals' rough estimate there were well over 15,000 pounds of sea biscuit and salted meat bound for the hold--sufficient provisions for a three-month cruise, maybe more. Barrels of fresh water and spirits went down the hatchways with a number of less recognizable containers. Theodolites, sextants, spyglasses, mountain barometers, and leather cases of mathematical instruments--the exotica of a precise land survey--were being salted away too.
On the morning of December 20 the Cyane made final preparations to get under way. The long-awaited steam tug, Thunderbolt, had arrived during the night to tow them through the gathering ice. At 10 a.m. the topmen went aloft and the crew hauled up anchor. They would be making sail and tracking south along the Gulf Stream in less than forty-eight hours. The ice shattering over Cyane's bow notwithstanding, a young, adventure-minded lieutenant named Isaac Strain could not remember a time when he had felt more fortunate.
The Navy Department, in response to the wishes of President Franklin Pierce, had assigned Cyane to "special service,'' a reconnaissance of a prospective Atlantic-Pacific ship canal route through the Isthmus of Darien in present-day Panama. After a series of autumn meetings with the secretary of the Navy and Pierce, Strain unexpectedly won the command, his first. His crossing party, officially known as the U.S. Darien Exploring Expedition, was to locate what until recently had not been thought to exist: a break in the mountains across the narrowest portion of the isthmus, the so-called Darien Gap.
The tropics location had the whiff of freshness in an otherwise old and costly battle to link the seas. After centuries of being battered on the endless ice of the Canadian Arctic and never finding the storied Northwest Passage, the first nations saw something a good deal brighter in the warm crease of a slender forest. Great Britain and France were simultaneously mounting a joint survey expedition of the same Darien route, with Her Majesty's Admiralty said to be sending three English vessels, including a man-of-war and an advanced survey ship, the steam-powered Scorpion. Naturally the governments pledged cooperation. Privately, it was a different matter. Like their successful race to summit Everest a hundred years later, England saw an undertaking that would define her people's greatness. President Pierce, an aggressive expansionist who viewed the country's borders expanding to Cuba and beyond, was no less determined. Isaac Strain, he would have easily seen, was his Hillary.
There are no surviving photographs of the Cyane's crew. The exploring party didn't bring a camera, a bulky contraption still in its infancy at midcentury and rarely used outside the popular city portrait studios. Instead the journey was expected to be recorded with a draftsman's faithful and exuberantly detailed line drawings.
The first of the images, a wardroom tableau, is telling. The thirty-three-year-old Strain was a small man, but he dominates the frame. He is the lone figure standing at a large table of his fellow officers. The ship's stout captain, George Hollins, appears almost a spoof of the old Navy: rotund, sedentary, dispassionate. The ship belonged to Hollins, of course; he was the permanent commander. But the coming expedition command was Strain's, and he is Hollins's dashing opposite: lean and all storm-trim--more the sinewy bowsprit than the dense mainmast. His shoulders are right-angle square. He has an aquiline nose and a full but slender brown beard that seems to wrap his jaw like planking on a well-formed bow. His head, with its boyish thatch of brown hair, is luminous, bathed in light where the others are not. His physical posture, left arm bracing the top of a chair and right tucked inside a full-length, high-collared naval coat, is intensely attentive. The portrait seems to describe a new kind of leader, one defined by movement and stirred by the remarkable ambition of the age.
An "interoceanic" ship canal was not just a gigantic task, said one statesman, "but the greatest the world has ever known." The canal's creation would defy nature in the most fundamental way imaginable--dividing the Americas in two. The rising tide of the Pacific would flow right through a man-made, 150-foot-wide channel (bringing Atlantic-bound ship traffic along with the flood; on the receding ebb tide the vessels would cross in the opposite direction, Atlantic to Pacific).
It was an audacious plan but it was a confident time--genius was everywhere. Steamships and mail packets cruised the waters of the world, and where they stopped, the newly lain railroads started. Where a river stopped, an American engineer saw another beginning. By 1850 hundreds of artificial waterways webbed the East. It was the Canal era.
Darien, the grandest canal of them all, would change the world all over again. No railway crossed the North American continent in 1853, and none would for another fifteen years. If a "gap," or low pass existed in Darien's Atlantic mountains, as it was hotly rumored to, then the tunneling work would be minimal and the seas would be joined with relative ease. Suddenly goods, from mail to gold, might be shipped to distant places like California, or even Australia, in a fraction of the usual time. The traditional sailing route around Cape Horn, one of the most storm-ravaged passages in seafaring, might be avoided, sparing lives and millions of dollars in wrecked shipping. The four-month voyage from New York to California would take half as long.
Darien was a project whose commercial advantages were hardly possible to overrate, Strain wrote the Navy Department on November 3, when he formally accepted his command. "As an American officer [there is nothing] I should feel more pride in connecting my name,'' he added. If commerce was king, then tiny Darien was potentially the most gilded terrain on the vast planetary map.
And yet Darien wasn't a new idea--it was the oldest. In 1503 Christopher Columbus, on his fourth and final voyage, futilely combed the Panama coast, believing the isthmus was merely a peninsula and that in the vicinity of Darien he would find its termination and thus a passage through. El estrecho secreto, the secret strait, never revealed itself, of course, and in November of the same year he dejectedly turned away from the palm-fringed shores of Panama for the dreary homeward voyage to Spain.
The search was famously resumed by Vasco Noe-ez de Balboa. In 1512, from a peak in Darien, Balboa became the first European to see the vast Pacific. The Spaniard's Darien settlements at Santa Mar'a del Antigua and Acla, the first mainland New World colonies, thrived on the promise of a transit route across. When none materialized, the settlements succumbed, the ruins overrun by emerald jungle. By the time the Spanish left they had come to equate Darien with the fictional hell of Dante's Inferno. In 1699 the quest was revived again, this time by a charismatic Scot named William Paterson. In a grand colonizing scheme, he proclaimed the geographically charmed Darien as "the door of the seas and key to the universe." The Scots died in diseased droves and lasted less than a year. Sickness was inevitable in the tropics, a colonist lamented, but death swept Darien. The land was cursed.
From his first research Isaac--one of the few Navy men who had traversed and studied jungle habitats-- saw himself drawn into Darien's orbit, its history and tragic protagonists. It was the most written-about and trod-upon bit of blank geography on the globe, only the writing seemed to tangle like spidery jungle vines, each account twisting into another until it was impossible to tell right from wrong, real from imagined. Not a single fact was reliable. The information, maps included, was either dated or distorted to advance someone's scheme--or to savage another's. For the first half of the century not a single expedition had even dared to cross. Between the two oceans seemed concentrated the obstacles of a continent, one account read: a maze of precipitous mountains, whitewater torrents, and impenetrable swamp.
But the geographic rumor persisted. There was a way through, a gap neither the pioneer Spaniards nor the native Indians wished to make known. The rumor gave rise to a belief that took hold in Europe and quickly spread to a watchful America. Darien, the vengeful and defiant wilderness at the crossroads of the world, was a myth. Isaac was certain his party would be the first to offer a correct view.
According to the secretary of the Navy's orders, the Cyane was to sail first for Cartagena, at the northern tip of South America in present-day Colombia, then on to Caledonia Bay, where Lieutenant Strain would lead a "speedy" overland crossing of the isthmus in an attempt to map and survey the route. He was to do so without disrupting or antagonizing the native Indians, and he was to report his instrumented findings directly to the Department.
Getting the Cyane ready in time seemed a long shot. Strain's $1,500 budget, the best the Department could do, was barely enough for slop clothing. In the few weeks he had, the lieutenant flew into motion. "I have asked as little as compatible with the execution of the work, and will with pleasure devote my own limited means to cover any margin which may be left," he explained with the presentation of his extraordinary budget.
The technical survey instruments, he pointed out, required no outlay; they came on loan from the National Observatory in Washington. The arms, which would be returned, were from a friendly quartermaster. They included the best guns then available: twenty percussion muskets, ten Jenks carbines, and eight Colt pistols. Firearms, given the many hazards, were a first priority.
But his attention to detail was evident everywhere. Food came from the Cyane's stores, but Strain requested and received permission to significantly rework the standard ration. The jungle could be a hostile environment: hard to hunt in and difficult to provision for. Beef, the lieutenant wrote the Department, "would be ill adapted to land transportation, and contains in the same bulk and weight much less nutrients [than pork]."
Strain also dispatched friends to chase down more background journal articles and books from the best private libraries in New York, Boston, and Washington. From the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences came tin collecting boxes and reams of coarse paper for botanizing, one of Strain's many hobbies. A well-known businessman who saw Strain in ceaseless action prior to December 20 marveled at his "great enthusiasm" and ingenuity. He had no personal liabilities--he was not married and had scrupulously avoided owning a home. Every time he left for sea he brought his treasured books and personal journals with him, as if one day he might not be coming back. Few could imagine a man better suited to exploration--or more desirous to follow in the footsteps of the famous pioneers who came to Darien before him.
Strain was encouraged by their transit of the Delaware. The ice had slowed but not stopped them. Sixty miles along he and much of the crew regarded the progress of Fort Delaware, a massive granite fortress somehow rising out of the compressible river mud. As the three-masted Cyane eased past the long, low southeast bastion, Strain gave the order for a formal salute. The island construction site, with wharf builders and stonecutters astride thudding pile drivers, was a vision of American willpower and industrial ingenuity. The cannon blast crashed through the overcast sky to massive cheers, aboard and ashore. Curiously, their 77 degrees west longitude was a magic number of sorts, the same looping meridian shared by the tiny Pennsylvania burg where Strain was born and, after a considerable expanse of ocean, the Isthmus of Darien.
Meet the Author
TODD BALF, the author of The Last River and a former senior editor for Outside, is a contributing editor to Men’s Journal. He first traveled to Panama’s Darién in 1991—a memorably flawed crossing in which he and his companions traveled by foot, burro, and dugout canoe yet managed to see neither the Pacific nor the Atlantic.
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